By Patrick Sagaram
The year before we turned 13, Kevin and I wanted to be Crockett and Tubbs. We imagined cruising through the dark Miami night, streetlights sliding off the hood and hubcaps of our Daytona as In The Air Tonight menaced in the background. Wednesday nights we'd watch it on Channel 5 and the next day, we'd be hunting criminals around our neighbourhood. Unlike other kids we were latchkeys with no interest in dribbling a ball or flying a kite. So we stuck together, busting drug dealers on foot or tracking shady cartels on our bikes, speeding like demons on running tracks that roped our estate.
He lived a few blocks away and attended a different school. That didn't stop us from meeting almost every afternoon. Before all this crime fighting business he'd take me to the open patch of land opposite our flat, both of us squinting, our hands cupped and ready to trap grasshoppers as blades of lalang scratched out thighs. When rain puddled the grass, Kevin would point out clusters of frog eggs to me. Days later, we would return with jams jars to see if tadpoles had squeezed their way out into the world.
Crockett and Tubbs changed everything. We dug the clothes, the cars and all things slick. On afternoons when the sun hung like a coin of flame in the sky, Kevin would meet me at the canal and we'd run sting operations under the footbridge, sprinting up and down its sloping walls, bullets of sweat sliding down our backs
All this was good fun until Aunty Verghese, my neighbour living two doors down, spotted us and told my mother. My parents had warned me never to go there ever since a brother and sister drowned some years ago. I can still picture my mother in her housedress, screaming at me in front of people passing by and pulled me home by the ear. Later that evening when my father got home from work and got the news, he unbuckled his belt and lashed me behind the knees.
He worked long hours at the shipyard and was always tired and moody. My mother had her hands full at home. She was either pulling clothes out of the machine, labouring over the stove or keeping an eye on me, making sure I wasn't spending all my time daydreaming or sitting in front of the TV.
Our family rarely went out during the week but on Sundays we'd attend morning mass without fail. Afterwards we'd have breakfast at the coffee shop opposite the church, my father rushing through his meal and tapping his fingers on the table while my mother and I hurriedly mopped up curry off our plates with prata.
For Kevin it was just he and his mum. I knew better than to ask because everyone in our neighbourhood knew his father was out of the picture. Whenever I was over at his place, I never heard them really speak. If they did, it would be a one-way thing where she'd say something and he'd answer in a snort of sorts.
You should have seen her in those days: always in this pair of ridiculous shorts, hitched up high enough you could see the curve of her ass. Always wore this one tank top, her nipples poking out of the cotton. She walked around with a lit cigarette between her fingers or dangling from her lips, smoke curling up her face. I could tell Kevin was embarrassed to be around her. And the truth is could you blame him?
Worse still how every now and then there'd be some man his mother brought home from the bar and they'd lock themselves in the bedroom. "Wrestling," he'd tell me with a wink. "They're wrestling." It took a while before I understood what he meant. He lost count of the times he caught his mother's flings sneaking out and fading down the corridor. Sometimes he'd see their faces and other times he didn't.
I was over at his place all the time. There'd be piles of clothing left on the furniture, a flowery ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts sat on top of the TV. Decorative plants took up space in the living room. A crazy mess but homely, at least.
My parents didn't mind us hanging out. In fact, my father snapped a photo of us on our bikes, arms around each other. If they were uncomfortable about our friendship, they never mentioned anything. But my mom had a way of asking about his mom.
"How's Aunty Doris?" she said, letting lentils simmer in a pan.
"Like that," I said.
"It's nothing. Place still cluttered?"
"More potted plants. Cacti, this time. "
My mum clanged a lid over the pan, mumbling something about Chinese people loving to horde things at home. "Don't know how they live like that," she said in Tamil.
In my home, things had to be in place. What I couldn't stand was the major cleaning works on Saturday mornings when my father ran the vacuum cleaner and sucked everything out including sounds from the TV. He would make me drag a pail around the flat and wipe down all the doors and windows. Once I rushed my chores as I was eager to get back to Man from Atlantis just as he decided to spot check by running his fingers over the doorframe. Because of my sloppiness he kept the TV unplugged for a week.
Kevin never lifted a finger around his house. He was a foot taller than me and talked like a know-it-all. The things he never went into detail were about his father and the men that snuck in and out of his home. Still, you could always tell when one of them was getting serious with his mom because he'd ask me over to show off an action figure or a Lego set. One time he unboxed a radio control replica of the Daytona. Like the real one, it was black with pop-up headlights. We took it to the void deck where I stood watching him make loops around a wall with a scrawling of a cock and balls. "Just like Crockett's," Kevin said, thumbing the controls. He never let me touch it, though.
Kevin found the videos in a shoebox one afternoon when he was wandering around by himself. I was in my room racing through my homework when he rang. "You'll never guess what I found," he said. "Come over now."
All the girls in the film looked like nothing I'd seen before. Tons of freestyle hair permed and teased to perfection, eyes staring into our own through thick lashes and creamy breasts with veins contouring the skin like lines on a map. The men in their mullets and striated muscles looked like characters in the comics I was reading. When I saw what they did to those girls in strange positions, I felt something inside of me implode.
But Kevin was ahead, fast-forwarding the VCR to the good bits. "That's almost the size of a 50-cent coin," he said pointing to a blonde with pink areolas before palming the screen in a grabbing motion.
"Hey," Kevin said, turning to me. "Look at those nehnehs!"
I could only nod because I couldn't find any words to express what I was seeing. Kevin rolled his eyes and shook his head.
"Damn suaku lah you," he said.
After a while he got up and disappeared into the toilet for a long time before I heard the flush. He stepped out, wiped his hands on my t-shirt.
"Where did you find the tapes?" I asked, eyes on the TV.
"At the tunnel," Kevin said.
"Yup," he said. "It's close by. Near the market."
"You don't believe huh? I'd take you there if you weren't such a pussy."
I told him I wasn't a coward.
He grinned, raised his voice and said, "Yes you are."
Around this time he started to curse, picking up what he heard from the older boys playing football below our block or one of his mother's boyfriends. Kevin started swearing in front of his mom to provoke her. When it appeared she couldn't care less, it made him so angry he turned on me, daring me to try it on my parents.
I'd rather die.
The one time I said shit after spilling Milo on my sleeves, my father walked up behind me, tapped me on the shoulder and timed his slap across the side of my face as I spun around. "Next time," he said in Tamil, waving a finger, "I'll cut your tongue off." In atonement, I had to kneel in front of the family altar and recite a decade of the rosary. Between Hail Mary's, the fantasy of trading places with Kevin crossed my mind. No one turning off the TV, sending me to bed early or yelling at me to take my feet off the sofa. I could do whatever I wanted and I didn't see anything wrong with that.
"Oi," Kevin said. "Do you have money left?"
We were at the hawker center, sipping Coca-Cola, taking a break from cycling. Both of us sitting under a hard whipping fan, sticky with dust from the pavements and grease from the stalls.
"No," I said.
He clucked his tongue. "I want to get some gum," he said. "Stick the tattoo on my arm."
"Go back and take," I said.
"Nah, waste time only," he said. "I've got an idea."
The plan was simple. Cycle to the provision shop, the one with the sleepy old lady sitting upfront fanning herself. It was by the corner of the market near the fruit and vegetable sellers where there weren't many people around in the afternoon. She put everything out in front. Sweets, crackers and jam biscuits. One of us had to get off the bike and distract her by asking for the price of the plastic ball hanging overhead in its netting. The other rides past and scoots with the loot. But who was going to do what?
I had my doubts.
"If we get caught, she'll call the police."
"You stupid or what," Kevin said. "They'll just tell your parents."
I was thinking what was worse.
"Easy for you to say," I told him. "You have no clue what my father will do to me."
"Don't be a pussy."
"Prove it," he said, balling his hand into a fist, calling lom-cham-pass. "Loser gets on the bike."
I watched as he cycled up and idled around the shop for a while. He got off and started talking to the lady, pointing to the ball. Then he glanced at me, our eyes locking.
I began to pedal.
Later as I waited for him it felt as if my heart was beating out of my chest.
"Did you get it?" he asked, cycling towards me.
Opening my hand, I showed him the packets of gum. One of it had a cartoon of an Aztec impaling a cactus with a spear on the wrapper, I remember. I passed everything to him and watched as he unwrapped a stick, popped it in his mouth and started chewing.
"Here," he said. "Take one."
Stopping down on a knee, I shook my head. I felt like throwing up.
"Hey," he said, landing a whack on the back of my head. "Relax lah. Come let's go."
"Where?" I asked looking up.
"Just follow me."
He took me to the tunnel where he found those videotapes. It was about a click from the market near the point blocks. We accessed it from a tributary drain and splashed about ankle deep in syrupy brown water for some time before coming to an open area shielded by overgrown vegetation. There was an old mattress and a guitar with two strings. T-shirts hung from a pole jammed between cracks in the walls. Water jetted from a hole in the wall, overflowing into a dirty pail.
"Eww, disgusting," Kevin said.
"What?" I said.
"Condoms," he said, stepping sideways.
"Condoms?" I said.
Kevin laughed, signalling he knew something I didn't.
From chasing make-believe criminals, we became criminally advanced. Afternoons we spent at the stationary store gliding past the aisles and stuffing our pockets with flag erasers, mechanical pencils and matchbox cars. Once I stole torchlights because I could. When someone looked my way, I'd put on my earnest face pretending to look for something I needed for school. Kevin was always cool, lifting things right under everyone's noses. Sometimes on his way out he would stop and make small talk with the uncle sitting at the cashier while I waited outside, trying not to shit my pants.
My parents never suspected a thing.
Did I feel bad? Sure I did. But it wasn't guilt on Sunday morning during mass. More like a hollowness in my gut when I watched Crockett and Tubbs infiltrate a violent gang or foil some shady arms deal. Deep down, I knew no one stays smooth forever.
Once day at the 7-Eleven, we got careless. I'd just stepped outside, my schoolbag stuffed with packets of cheezles and twisties. But the store lady stopped Kevin. Through the glass door, I saw him comply, his hand reaching for his bag. Next thing I knew he took a swing at her. She hit the floor, face flat on the white tiles. Kevin stepped over her, pushed open the door and ran past me.
He headed for the tunnel. I followed.
Kevin knew something wasn't right but I saw the triangle piece of glass protruding from his shoe, as both of us lay crouched in the tributary drain. It was stuck between his toes, the blood forming tiny archipelagos against his white shoes. He didn't make a sound but I could tell from his face.
"I can't move my feet," Kevin said. "It's gone all the way in."
"How deep?" I said.
"I don't know."
"Take off your shoe, let me see."
"I can't lah. It's stuck in between, stupid."
"Keep your voice down," I said realising things had just taken a turn for the worse. "They must have called the police by now."
"They'll never find us here," he said. As he ran a finger over the wound, his jaw muscles tightened, the chords on his neck pulled tight.
"Why did you have to hit her?"
He kept quiet. His voice shaking, he said, "You'll have to pull it out."
"Maybe I should get help," I said.
"And leave me here all my by myself?" he said, grabbing my hand, the bones in our fingers touching. "No way."
"C'mon Kev," I said.
"Do it," he said stretching out his leg over my lap, determined.
I pinched the piece of glass with my thumb and forefinger, holding down on his ankle with my other hand. He bit down on his lip; eyes clamped shut, borders of perspiration lining his forehead. I puffed my cheeks and pulled with one quick movement. It was so fast he reacted with surprise until the blood started and the pain hit.
I shoved my palm on his mouth, muffling screams into whimpers. Then he stopped, exhausted. I removed his shoe.
"It's a deep cut," I said. "Put your finger on it. Stop the bleeding."
He made a slow wheezing noise as he took off his socks, all covered in blood.
After a while, I suggested we leave.
"Not yet," he said, sniffing back tears. "Let's wait a little longer. I need to rest."
"It's getting late," I said. "You know my mum, right."
"Just tell her the truth."
"About my little accident."
"You know," he sighed, shaking his head and shrugging his schoolbag. "Sometimes you're such a blur block."
He limped towards the open area.
Years later and I still can't think of a reason why I never ran a common sense check at that moment. Why I went along with him, foolishly.
We heard the sounds when we approached our spot. A long drawn-out sigh, like a cry in reverse. It was my first time seeing men kiss. They were on the mattress, a mangle of bare bodies. I remember looking at their faces, their expressions of agony. It didn't occur to me that the experience could be painful. A few feet away water trickled into the pail with a heavy plop. One of them ran his hand down the other's belly unbuttoning his jeans and pulling the zipper all the way down before letting the cloth flap open, hanging out like wings.
It wasn't long before one of them caught sight of us. Our eyes locked and he pulled away. But when they saw us they relaxed. One of them pinched the other's buttocks and got up. He was skinny with hair collected in a ponytail. He didn't bother covering up. Kevin held on to my shoulder, hobbling on one foot.
"What are you staring at?" he said.
"We weren't staring," Kevin said. "We didn't see anything,"
"You heard that Zuk," he said approaching us. "He says he didn't see anything."
"Liar," Zuk said, stretching out on the mattress, yawning. He lay there supporting his head with his arm, watching us.
"He's hurt," I said pointing to Kevin's feet.
"Poor thing," he said, making a cooing sound. Turning to his friend, he asked, "Maybe I take a look eh?"
Zuk nodded assent, started whistling.
Kevin began crying softly.
I was already down the tunnel nearing the tributary drain, my clothes and shoes soaked and stinking from slipping twice. By the time I crawled out, the sky had purpled down and mynahs clattered on trees in protest. I remember vomiting on the pavement, threads of saliva hanging from my mouth. Along the running track nearby, people passing by threw glances at me.
Back home my mother's voice cut across the living room. "Where were you?" she shrieked as I tracked grime all over the floor, stammering something about getting into a fight. Good thing my father was working the night shift because there was no telling what he would have done.
I went into the bathroom, took off all my clothes, turned on shower, and ran it, blazing hot. Wrapped in steamy mist with studs of water piercing my chest and thighs, I still couldn't keep from shivering.
After that day, I kept my distance. When I got home from school, I'd be in my room finishing homework or studying. I killed free time reading having stopped watching TV altogether. I was afraid to leave the house. When my mother asked me to run errands at the market, I'd find some excuse not to go or make it a fast one. Every time a shop owner paused too long when returning change, my stomach churned.
Months passed. One Sunday before mass, I decided to come clean about it to the priest. I told my parents I needed the washroom but I ducked into the confessional box. Inside, I crossed myself and folded my hands together, saying, "Bless me Father."
It was all I could manage. I waited for it to come out of me but it wouldn't.
"You seem to be having trouble," said the priest, his voice on the other end so deep and scratching.
"Have you given this a lot of thought?"
I told him I did.
From the wicker mesh, I could hear his breath coming out in wisps, his patience wearing thin. Learning closer, I whispered, "I deserted a friend."
He remained silent for a moment and then said, "Did you make good with him?"
"Then I pray you have the courage to do so."
The priest gave me my penance. As I pressed my palm against the door of the confessional box, he said, "What's life without friendship?"
It's not that I didn't try. Except that I couldn't track him down. It was as if he had completely vanished.
"Did I tell you?" said my mum, standing by the kitchen sink scooping onion skins into the bin. "I saw Kevin the other day."
Sitting at the dining table, I paused and looked up from my equations. Realising who she was talking about I said, "Really? How is he?"
"He seems OK. He asked about you."
"What did you say?"
"Told him to come over, pay us a visit."
"What?" I said, terrified of the thought of seeing him in my home.
"He was in a rush," my mom went on, bent close, knife in hand as she trimmed the strips of fat from a slab of mutton. "Lives with his grandmother now, you know. Comes to see his mom on the weekends." Then she stopped and turned towards me, a look of puzzlement on her face. "The two of you were so close. What happened?" she asked.
I twirled my pen, a burst of relief springing from my chest as I went on and on about my new friends in secondary school. Except my mother wasn't listening anymore. Outside, clothes flapped away on bamboo poles.
Weeks after finishing my 'A'-Levels, I enlisted into Tekong. Days before, I sat in my room going through the family albums looking for photographs I could stick in my locker like the ones you see in movies. I hadn't left yet but flipping through the albums was like sifting through vines and clumps of unsorted memories that made me homesick.
"Here," my father said putting another stack on the floor already cluttered with photos. "These are the last few."
"Almost," I said, looking around my room.
"Nervous or not?"
I told him I was OK except I couldn't look him in the eye.
"Don't worry," my father said. "The army will make a man out of you."
He sat down next to me, put on his reading glasses and picked one album.
"This one," he said pointing to a particular photo, removing it from its plastic sleeve before passing it to me.
It was Kevin and I on our bikes. We were so young then. At the time, I wanted all the things he had. He was looking for something else. It all came avalanching back, those winding stairwells, dark corridors and the tunnel when I had left him.
I looked at the picture a second time. Kevin and I had our arms around each other, both of us smiling. Both of us blinked.QLRS Vol. 17 No. 4 Oct 2018